Saturday, January 20, 2007

The agony and the ecstacy of science

In 1911, Norwegian Roald Amundsen and Englishman Robert Scott were in a race across Antarctica to reach the South Pole. Scott and his party braved pack ice, storms, and fierce cold to reach the South Pole, only to find that Amundsen's team had arrived a month earlier. Sadly, Scott's expedition perished just miles from food and shelter as they attempted to return home.

In a much, much less serious situation, I had a somewhat similar polar experience last night. I am using the Keck Observatory to identify the types of stars in the open star cluster Messier 67 using a spectrograph (see my article on spectra to see how we can learn about stars these spectra). Anyway, one of the spectra was very weird -- it had bright lines, dark bands, and was, for lack of a scientific term, very funky. After puzzling for a while, I figured out that the object was a "polar" (pronounced "POLE-are") -- a white dwarf star with a very strong magnetic field that is pulling material away from a neighboring star.

This was exciting -- I didn't know of any polars in star clusters, so this was a potentially important discovery. So, I put the coordinates of the star into a star database to see if the star was known. I was certain it was unknown, as this star was very faint. BUT, there it was in the catalog, having been discovered 15 years ago and observed a handful of times since then.

Very quickly, a lot of the excitement drained from me, and I was tired. Not surprising, since it was 4am. But my important discovery was gone. I DO have some of the best data ever taken for this object, and there is a lot of science we can do with this information.

One common theme in science is that many things are "discovered" several times. But, thanks to the power of libraries and computer searching, I can't take credit for re-discovering this star. But, I am keeping my eyes peeled for another interesting star that everyone else has overlooked!

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